Internationally acclaimed actress Michelle Yeoh brings poise, polish and ferocity to the role of immovable matriarch Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians.
Based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she heads off to Singapore for the wedding of the best friend of her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). She gets more than she bargained for, however, as she discovers that Nick’s family is one of the wealthiest in the country – and Nick is one of its most eligible bachelors.
Then there is Nick’s fearsome mother Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh, who doesn’t exactly take a shine to Rachel…
Throughout her career, Yeoh has challenged traditional views of Asian women by creating very strong female roles in films like Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon –as well as TV’s Star Trek: Discovery– and was Kwan’s dream casting for Eleanor.
The actress recalls their meeting when the author visited the set: “It was so charming because I saw this gentleman smiling at me, and I was thinking, ‘Maybe I know him from somewhere?’ And it was Kevin. He then told me, ‘I am here watching my dream come true.’ That was so, so, so sweet! He’s so talented and humble and we are so proud of him. He is an inspiration.”
Yeoh also has high praise for filmmaker Jon M. Chu, whom she realised was the right director for Crazy Rich Asians from their first meeting.
“He had a strong vision, and we immediately latched onto the traditions we have as Chinese people. He was born in the United States, but he had very traditional parents who helped him understand the values of being in an Asian family.
“There are many differences between Asians who grew up in Asia and those who grew up in the United States,” she explains. “That understanding helped me convey why Eleanor was so protective of her son, Nick, who is her only child. For me, it was important to show why Eleanor would have a negative reaction to Nick’s girlfriend, Rachel. Eleanor sees her as someone who may cause Nick to undermine those values.”
Eleanor is the kind of mother known in Singapore as a “lion mum”, who bares her claws to protect her offspring. And while she instills fear in everyone around her, Yeoh wanted to play the character the way Kwan envisioned her, as a human being and not simply the movie’s villain.
“It was important to me that you feel the love she has for Nick and understand why she’s so intimidating,” she explains. “And then comes this girl, Rachel, who Eleanor thinks is unsuitable for Nick because this young lady has no idea what it takes to be in a traditional Chinese family.
“In some respects, I almost see Eleanor looking at Rachel with sympathy. She feels sorry for her, because you must sacrifice a lot to be a part of Eleanor’s family.
But Rachel may not be ready to do that. So, Eleanor is looking for a way to give Rachel a way out of the relationship. We had fun exploring those ideas.”
Yeoh adds that her own encounters with women like Eleanor, while growing up in Asia, also helped to inform the character.
“I know a lot of those elegant matriarchs in Hong Kong, who had Eleanor’s ‘look’ – it’s a look you already know by heart,” she laughs. “So, when we embarked on the journey of making this film, I knew we had to see beyond the fashion and jewellery and over-the-top fun and remember that many of these matriarchs are well educated and elegant. You must keep that balance; otherwise, it becomes too much like a comedy or farce. I wanted Eleanor to have that mix of wealth, elegance and education.”
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